Richard Matheson's creations are far more familiar to the public than he is. His is no household name, like Stephen King's, nor even as familiar as Ray Bradbury's. But much of his writing has been adapted into well-known television programs and films, often by him, as part of a significant career as a screenwriter. The movies of his classic science fiction/horror novels are well known: The Shrinking Man (1956; filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957, and evidently with a remake in production, with a tentative release of 2010) and I Am Legend (1954; filmed in Italy as The Last Man on Earth, 1964; as The Omega Man, 1971; and 2007). His lesser-known novels Stir of Echoes (1958; film 1999) and What Dreams May Come (1978; film 1998) have also made creditable films, starring Kevin Bacon and Robin Williams, respectively. Somewhere In Time (1980), based on his novel Bid Time Return (1975; now published under the movie's title) is something of a cult film.
Two previous collections of his stories published by Tor bear well-known "media" titles: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (2002) and Duel (2003). The first was a classic Twilight Zone episode (1963). Many people too young to have had the bejeezus scared out of them by its original showings are familiar with William Shatner pulling up a shade to confront a monster (having seen it as a child, I still have a bad feeling raising a shade at night). Duel (1971) attracted a lot of attention as a TV movie (including a Golden Globe nomination), and is still noted as Steven Spielberg's first film.
The reason for Tor's new collection, Button, Button, seems to be the title story, a strong, neat, compact tale, filmed, for some reason, as The Box (a demonstration of taking a title with some resonance and changing it to a title with no resonance). It stars Cameron Diaz and is due out in March, 2009.
The twelve stories (ten short stories, a "poem," and a novelette) in Button, Button span Matheson's short story writing career, from 1950 to 1970. In his introduction to the Dream Press edition of his Collected Stories (three volumes, 1988), he noted that, "Since approximately 1970, I have never had the least desire to write another short story," and in fact, at the time of writing, had produced no fiction since 1978's What Dreams May Come (pp. 5, 12; all page references to the Collected Stories are to the Gauntlet Press edition). He did, however, publish a few stories thereafter, as well as a collection of previously unpublished apprentice work, Darker Places (Gauntlet Press, 2004) and one of Westerns, By the Gun (Owlsbooks, 1993).
The stories in Button, Button give a fairly good sample of Matheson's short story work and are generally representative of a particular strain of genre fiction of the period. Though they may contain original ideas and leave the reader with striking images (or are we recalling the filmed versions?), they're not, in content, seminal to their genres. The science fiction stories in this collection—"Mute" (The Fiend in You, Ballantine Books, 1962, ed. Charles Beaumont) and "The Jazz Machine" (Fantasy and Science Fiction, Feb. 1963), which are firmly science fictional, and "Pattern for Survival" (Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1955) and "'Tis the Season to be Jelly" (Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1963), a little less firmly—are representative of Matheson's short fiction in that they require only a nodding acquaintance with science fictional concepts such as aliens, telepathy, rocket travel, and post-apocalyptic scenarios.
His work, in other words, is part of the great sea of 19th and 20th century middle-brow short popular fiction that has now mostly been superseded by television and movies. It is skilled, original, and at times, if not profound, at least telling, in its depiction of ideas, emotions, themes. For instance, Matheson portrays aptly, sometimes wrenchingly, a certain anguish at the diminishment of the status and role of the American male in The Shrinking Man (a clearer title could hardly be wished for), something like what Theodore Sturgeon was concerned with in Venus Plus X. But then, his novels are a different case from his short stories, and generally strike more deeply.
It's not a failure in Matheson as a writer and certainly not as a person, that makes many of his short stories more superficial, as far as depth of genre content, than the stories of other writers. The difference lies in the nature of what he was trying to do: entertain, in a very brief space, the widest possible audience. His stories hark back to the time when stories were simply stories, not necessarily divided by type. He is not committed to the genres for their own sake. As a result of all this, his literary forebears are not so much Verne and Wells (though the occasional Wells story might fit as a Matheson forebear—"The Stolen Bacillus," for instance), or the early masters of horror, such as Poe, Hoffmann, or Bierce, as much as writers like Frank R. Stockton (but not the Stockton of the fairy tales) and John Kendrick Bangs, and even O. Henry. His stories take place in "genre" the way O. Henry's take place in New York—they use the familiar setting and its trappings—in Henry's case, the various neighborhoods, the rooming houses, rush hour, shop girls, ferries—to give substance to a clever idea, to surprise, to briefly illuminate some aspect of life and humanity. But above all, to entertain.
Among his contemporaries, he's best grouped with Charles Beaumont, Jerome Bixby (both screenwriters), and in some ways, with Jack Finney and Ray Bradbury, though in Bradbury's case, not in the area of style. One should recall that even in Bradbury's best period, the 1950s, there were complaints that he didn't write "real science fiction." In the parlance of mid-century genre writers, Matheson was aiming toward the "slick" end of the field rather than the "pulp" end. "Slick" and "pulp" were both designations of popular, not literary, fiction, and the writing of those selling to mass appeal publications—say, The Saturday Evening Post (don't think F. Scott Fitzgerald, think Paul Gallico and William Saroyan)—had to appeal to "everyone" (i.e., the white, middle-brow middle class), not to an inner circle steeped in genre. The audience of Playboy—to mention a frequent Matheson market—was not the same as that of Analog, or even of F&SF, where many of Matheson's stories appeared (though it was closer to F&SF).
The story in this collection that best bears comparison to serious science fiction of the period is "Mute," the longest piece in the book and one on which Matheson clearly expended much effort. It's an earnest—perhaps over-earnest—tale of a boy raised without speech, to be telepathic, and what occurs after he's bereft of his (rather loveless) parents. It's a bit too long, and in some ways undercuts its own point. Matheson wants us to see the potential replacement of telepathy by speech and familial love as comforting, but he spends so much time and energy praising telepathy in contrast with the crudeness of speech, it's difficult to do so. The potential loss of telepathy seems tragic, the "mother" love replacing it a little creepy, and we're left with an unintentional sense of horror. (It was filmed with a girl, rather than boy, protagonist, played by a young Ann Jillian, in Matheson's adaptation as an hour-long episode of The Twilight Zone, Jan. 31, 1963.)
But even this story bears the typically "popular" characteristics of Matheson's fiction. First, with only occasional exceptions, his style is plain to the point of featurelessness. It is built to convey story, aerodynamically stripped of all gewgaws and even of identifying characteristics (the style—not the stories themselves). The writing is transparent, one of the most styleless styles I've ever encountered.
It's no surprise that Matheson's and Beaumont's (and Bixby's) work was so adaptable to the mass media of TV and movies. Can you imagine a TV adaptation of a Cordwainer Smith story? It's no accident that Stephen King claims Matheson as a profound influence. And it's no surprise that Matheson's career trajectory, following the arc of storytelling's fate in modern popular culture, has been out of print media altogether and into film and TV. His purpose seems to have been to convey "story" by the most accessible and quickest means possible.
If one reads a lot of Matheson in a short period, the very voicelessness of the style can become wearying. But this slim book is not nearly long enough to bring on that kind of ennui, and Matheson did get away from featureless pop writing at times—as this volume bears out—though with mixed success. He wrote humor probably more than he's given credit for, but the angst and paranoia crucial to his psyche during his short fiction period, as he notes in his introduction to his Collected Stories (pp.3-12 in each volume), render him too serious to carry it off with any grace. "The Creeping Terror" (as "A Touch of Grapefruit" in Star Science Fiction Stories #5, ed. Frederick Pohl, Ballantine Books 1959, but "The Creeping Terror" is the original title), written in the form of reportage, is rather labored and now very dated in the details, despite the appeal of its concept: the infiltration of the rest of the country by a living, perhaps sentient, California, in the form of a taste for scanty apparel, frozen orange juice, and swimming pools, and demands for "the immediate construction of condominiums, supermarkets, tennis courts, drive-in theaters and drive-in restaurants" (p. 149). The country was long ago "Californicated" in these terms.
His occasional attempts at stylistic innovation or elaboration meet with similarly mixed success, setting aside, perhaps, "Born of Man and Woman" (Fantasy and Science Fiction, Summer, 1950), his attention-getting first published story. The poem (actually, prose printed as verse) in this collection, "The Jazz Machine" (F&SF Feb. 1963; reprinted, notably, in Judith Merrill's 9th Annual Edition: The Year's Best SF, 1964), is told by a black musician in a heavy slang which, even if it was ever really current (Matheson got it from a written source [Collected Stories Vol. 3, p. 221]), is overdone and now painfully dated. The narrator encounters a white man who has invented a machine that can take in music and play back its emotional essence. The poetry, of which Matheson was somewhat proud, is self-consciously "poetic" and a bit clunky and exposition-laden:
Why are the greatest jazz interpreters
Those who live beneath the constant
gravity of prejudice?
I think because the scaldings of external bias
Focus all their vehemence and suffering
To a hot, explosive core
And, from this nucleus of restriction
Comes all manner of fissions, violent and slow
Breaking loose in brief expression
Of the tortures underneath
Crying for deliverance in the unbreakable code of jazz. (pp. 193-4).
But the sympathetic reader who can get past the dated surface will find that the piece still has some power to move.
The style of "'Tis the Season to be Jelly"—a silly, grotesque jeu d'esprit in which some odd bumpkins in a post apocalyptic, dying world continue optimistic and lively, despite everything—is a contrived, countrified L'il Abner meets Pogo mishmash ("'We done bollixed de pritecktive canopee!" said Granpa", p. 200). The silliness of the story—which Matheson thought "as nutty as can be" (Collected Stories Vol. 3, p. 243)—is a little painful, though the story as a whole is not entirely unlikable.
Another characteristic of stories of the popular type is that they are often populated by characterless characters, or ciphers we could cover with a label—"older cranky suburbanite" in "Flourish of Strumpets", for instance, and "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit/Corporate Striver" in "Clothes Make the Man" (Worlds Beyond, Feb. 1951). Matheson's default is a white American suburban man, somewhere between working and upper middle class, and he feels no more need to describe or individualize these suburbanites than Kipling did his Subalterns. The audience knows what he means.
There are differences in the main characters in these stories, to fit the nature of the story, but they are more alike than different. The husband in "Button, Button" (Playboy June 1970) is more high-minded than most, contrasting, in this small morality play, with his wife, who exhibits a more common, self-interested venality. But apart from that characteristic, needed for the plot and theme, he is just another Everyman.
A third characteristic of Matheson's fiction is the use of a (usually) novel idea which is embodied by the story, drives the story, and helps to resolve the plot, point up a deeper theme, or both. The "reveal" of the idea is often in the form of a twist or a sort of punchline, so that the story plays like a very elaborate, if usually non-humorous, joke. O. Henry didn't really always use "surprise" endings; but there was some revelation, some twist, some point at the end of his stories, a sort of downmarket epiphany. Short fiction hadn't changed so very much between his time and 1960.
Several pieces here are little more than the rather single-minded working out of a fairly simple "neat idea," very "high concept"—one could give their essence in a line or two, like movie pitches to a busy executive. Because there's sometimes not much more to them, it's hard to say what they're about without spoilers. But we can say that "Clothes Make the Man" is about a man whose identity is so tied in with his garments that he can't function without them; "A Flourish of Strumpets" (Playboy, Nov. 1956), is about door-to-door prostitution in the suburbs, with a kind of "good for the goose, good for the gander" ending; and "Shock Wave" (Gamma, July 1963) is about a church organ destructively out of control. The appeal of these stories is the originality of the idea (if it is original), and the cleverness and adroitness with which it's worked out.
Matheson at his best is able to lay his hands on various aspects of the popular subconscious and evoke what he's found in a brief, palatable, easily digestible fictional form. In many cases, the idea wasn't previously elucidated, so his work has the winning quality of being easily familiar and original at once. He introduces the sort of ideas that seem almost commonplace—after they've been introduced.
But because this is popular fiction, Matheson plays off ideas more than explores them. The morality of the husband in "Button, Button" serves both plot and theme; but his highly moral stance about the propriety of using, abusing, or, in this case, killing others for our own advantage is not explored in the way it is in, for instance, Wallace Shawn's disturbing play Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985), especially in the achingly introspective afterword. The husband doesn't wonder about the cost of what he eats, the energy he uses, why his clothes don't cost more than they do, and who suffers for his relative advantages. Nor, in a brief story of this type, could he, or should he.
It's because popular fiction of this sort is so reflective of its time and culture that these stories are often dated. "Flourish of Strumpets," which reads like a suburban husband's lubricious daydream made over into story form, exhibits the kind of smirky, coy, somewhat smarmy sexuality that one finds especially in film comedies of the early to mid sixties (a fine example is A Guide for the Married Man, 1967), and somewhat earlier in writing, as old repressions met new license. Such stories simply mirror the prevalent attitudes of the time. There are only a few such in Matheson's oeuvre, and I don't think he himself was sleazy or especially sexist—if anything, I think he was rather progressive for the time.
Genre writers in the 1950s complained that they could not write completely adult stories because they had to be wary of including sex. That was true enough, perhaps, for the genre magazines, but not, of course, for the men's magazines that published science fiction, fantasy, or horror. While reading an anthology or collection from the fifties or sixties, one will occasionally stumble across a story with a much higher quotient of sex than the norm. Generally, these turn out to have been published in Playboy, as was "Strumpets," or one of its competitor magazines—Frederick Pohl's well-known and, for the time, rather racy "Day Million" was published in Rogue (1966), a men's magazine with strong science fiction connections.
Others of the stories collected here are not so much dated as simply odd, making one wonder about the selection criteria. "The Creeping Terror," already mentioned, was perhaps not terribly odd for its period, but it's odd to republish it now. "'Tis the Season to Be Jelly" was odd then and now. Especially peculiar as a story and as a choice for this collection is "Pattern for Survival." It's impossible to say much about the story without spoiling it, but it concerns a writer named Richard Allen Shaggley who, in a post-apocalyptic world—a sort of retro apocalypse, like something out of the Twilight Zone—is still, after a fashion, writing and publishing. In his note on the story in Collected Stories Vol. 2, Matheson said: "The writer's last name was "Shaggley," which was a take off on Robert Sheckley [who was prolific and successful as a short story writer in the early 1950s]. He was driving all of us nuts as he was getting tons of stories published and we didn't know where he came from. So we were all coming up with strange variations of his name in our stories. This was my satire of him—even if the world was ending, he'd still manage to get his stories published!" (p. 316). An odd little in-joke relic of the period. But strange that Matheson was jealous; in the same situation, his stories probably would have been published and filmed.
There are stories that are not particularly dated or odd, some with real virtues. "Girl of My Dreams" (F&SF Oct. 1963, adapted for ABC anthology series Journey to the Unknown, 1968) about a man pretending to love a woman he loathes in order to exploit her precognitive visions for gain, is difficult to read because the "protagonist" is nasty and brutal, but perhaps for that reason, the story still packs a punch. "No Such Thing as a Vampire," again with a harsh scenario played out within a marriage, is not a great story, but has some cleverness going for it (Playboy, Oct. 1959; adapted for movie of the week anthology Dead of Night, 1977, starring Patrick Macnee [not to be confused with the notable British horror anthology film of the same title, 1948]. "Dying Room Only" (Fifteen Detective Stories, Oct. 1953), the one non-speculative story, unravels into an unconvincing and clichéd finale that lacks the courage of its own convictions and fails to become the really destabilizing horror it could have been. It became a Movie of the Week (1973, starring Chloris Leachman and Ross Martin) and unfortunately, deserved to. But the earlier part of the story, in which a husband steps away for a moment in a public place and disappears, to his wife's terror, evokes a (perhaps common) nightmarish feeling, and at that point is quite compelling.
The title story is also the best. It's a concise fable about the two kinds of people in the world: those who think it's okay to exploit or abuse others, and those who don't. A somewhat impoverished couple is given a box with a button on it and told that, if they push it, someone they don't know will die, and they'll receive $50,000 (which may seem a spoiler, but that much is given on the book's back cover). It's hard to come up with a scenario that would make sense of the situation, but it has a dream logic, not a literal logic, and on that level is convincing enough. In fact, as sheer metaphor, it's rather telling. Don't we have people abused, not to say killed, all the time, for our benefit, financial and otherwise, anonymously and in distant lands?
Matheson lays out the conflict clearly, in the persons of the husband and wife, sets up a creepily devilish temptation, builds in a strong sense of threat, and provides a kicker that satisfies both thematically and plotwise. And all in less than roughly 3,000 words. It could almost be a John Collier story.
It does seem a bit brief and barebones to hang a movie on, though it was filmed once for television, a Twilight Zone episode starring Mare Willingham (1986; script as by Logan Swanson, Matheson's nom-de-plume when he was publishing multiple stories in the same venue or, as here, when he didn't like the end product, but needed the credit for professional purposes). It will be interesting to see if, and how, it can be made into a full-length film without ruining it.
Button, Button is not a "best of" Matheson. At his best, his stories are quick, efficient, and impactful, "storyteller stories" not in their artiness but in their purity of storytelling. These stories partake of enough of those qualities to be worth a look. If one is dissatisfied, one need only read on a few minutes, in most cases, to come to something else. This is less like a case of wine and more like a tasting flight, a bit in each glass and many glasses.
The stories are best enjoyed with a sense of their provenance, their period. Those with a liking for fiction of that period, when short fiction was still popular fiction, and those with a tolerance for the mores of the time, could do worse than this collection. It won't change anyone's life, but it should amuse for a few hours, and in a some cases, make the reader think and feel.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published seventeen short stories, with more forthcoming, and more than two hundred nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.